Nothing happens randomly in the life of a military chaplain. Ken Williams was out on exercises with other members of the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division stationed at Camp Hovey in South Korea. Reporters from the Armed Forces Network were doing a story on how military chaplains minister to soldiers when they’re in the field. They asked Chaplain Williams to recruit a couple of soldiers so they could get some video footage of him with the troops.
He picked out two young men and asked them to sit down and make small talk while the cameraman got what he needed.
During the conversation, one of the soldiers said, “Hey, I really do need to talk to you about something. Can we get together later?”
Williams recalls the meeting: “When we met that evening, he told me he wasn’t sure if he had eternal life. I led him in a prayer to receive Christ.”
Maj. Williams, a 17-year veteran of chaplaincy ministry in the National Guard and U.S. Army, knows he has to stay alert and take advantage of the ministry opportunities God gives him.
“Satan is the ultimate insurgent. The Bible says he’s always looking for victims,” Williams says. “I have to always be on a heightened state of alert, recognizing that everyone in my path is someone in need, being vigilant for the opportunities God gives me to meet their needs and draw them to Christ.
“In the military, there’s a saying, ‘Move with a purpose,’” he says. “It means if you don’t train properly and act with intentionality, people will die. As a chaplain, I have my fellow soldiers’ lives in my hands spiritually. If I’m not prepared to take advantage of the opportunities God gives me to share the good news with them, to do what I can to fend off the enemy, people will die without Jesus.”
By divine appointment
Williams is one of 1,082 Southern Baptist chaplains serving in the U.S. military—more than a third of the almost 3,000 chaplains endorsed by the North American Mission Board. In 2007, Southern Baptist chaplains reported sharing the gospel more than 64,000 times, leading 9,558 people to Christ and baptizing 2,607.
“Wherever they serve, chaplains are down in the trenches with people who are fighting life’s battles—at work, in the hospital, or in harm’s way as soldiers,” says Keith Travis, director of chaplaincy evangelism for the North American Mission Board.
“Our chaplains are making a huge difference for the kingdom. They’re leading literally thousands of people to the Lord,” Travis says. “And our military chaplains truly are out on the front lines of ministry. Our senior chaplains say we’re at the front edge of a great revival they believe is going to start in the military.”
“I believe I’m here by divine appointment,” says 23-year veteran Chaplain (Col.) Ken Kerr, senior chaplain for the 18th Medical Command at the Yongsan military base in Seoul, South Korea. “Every year, one third to one half of our personnel turn over here. That means our mission field is always fresh, but it also means we only have today’s opportunities to be a witness for Jesus Christ.
“We realize we have an opportunity here and now to reach people who may later be deployed into harm’s way. We may not have those moments again. We have to take advantage of opportunities that could change a soldier’s life for eternity.”
Great spiritual needs
In some ways, a chaplain’s ministry is similar to that of any church back in the United States, says Kerr.
“We have a chapel building in Hannam Village, a housing area near the base. We hold two worship services, one in English and the other in Korean,” he says. “We try to bring to our community a place to worship, to grow in their faith, and to reach out to others.
“We also do a lot of counseling. Our people have the same kinds of issues people have back home,” he says. “Many of our soldiers are 18-year-olds who are just beginning their military careers. They have great spiritual needs, and we have an opportunity to reach them for Jesus Christ.”
Says Williams: “This generation has a hard time with social skills and stress coping skills. Many of them have experienced some kind of abuse, so their personal management skills aren’t very good. They come here and face some serious temptations, and they tend to get into trouble. There’s a tremendous urgency for us to do training and spiritual fitness events that will help soldiers mature and make wise decisions.”
He recalls one young man who was drinking heavily and getting into fights. His superiors ordered him to get some help.
“This young man I’d never met before came into my office and sat down. I asked him what was going on, what all these issues were about,” Williams says. “He opened up about feeling empty and hopeless, so we talked about where direction and purpose come from, about how God can forgive you and give you hope.
“Right there in my office, a soldier I’d never met before prayed to receive Christ.”
Constantly on the lookout
While military chaplains don’t always get to see the results of their ministry to soldiers, they often have the privilege of gathering a harvest planted and cultivated by others, Chaplain Kerr says.
“One time I was in the field with my unit and preached a gospel message at a field service. Two weeks later, a soldier knocked on my door and asked if he could talk with me,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Chaplain, you remember what you said in the field? My grandma’s been praying for me to do that for years. Would you pray with me now to receive Christ?’
“I’d had an opportunity to present the gospel at the field service, but his grandmother had planted the seed years earlier,” he says. “I’ve had opportunities like that throughout my career, and I don’t know where those soldiers are now. But I do know that, wherever we are, if we’re faithful with the opportunities God gives us, God’s work will be done.”
For Chaplain Williams, living with urgency and seizing divine moments means staying alert and being available to the people the Lord brings across his path every day.
“If everybody has needs, and we’ve got the answer, then we need constantly to be on the lookout,” he says. “Living with urgency means being tuned in and aware of the opportunities God puts in your path.”
What’s true for chaplains on their mission fields is true for every pastor and every believer, Chaplain Kerr adds.
“Wherever God puts us, is a mission field,” he says. “If you love God, and you love people, you’ll find a way to get the two of them together.”